The Sign: LOST AND UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE

I stepped out of the old Kolkata airport into the strong musty smell that told me I was home.  Walking to the carpark, I noticed a low bluish building with a huge sign: LOST AND UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE.  I tried to imagine the goods there, luggage forgotten, tags lost; clothes and cheap jewellery left on the plane; contraband goods being smuggled but suddenly not worth being caught — the lost and unclaimed — inventory on the shelves of the blue building across the parking lot at Kolkata’s airport.  What they all had in common was the absence of traceable tags… identification — no origins, no destinations.

There is a taller building about half way between the airport and the city — a government institution that houses children, orphan children.  Many lack tags or identification.  They arrive — some via police, via Childline, via kind people who realized they were lost.  In Kolkata it is the lucky ones who end up in this building because sometimes children are “found” and then sold.

The children of Shishur Sevay came from this government building. Their lack of any known connections resulted in their being excluded from most “orphanages” since there would be no family or community to take them when they reached 18.  Additionally they had each been reviewed and rejected for adoption.  How had they gotten there?  Each had her story.  One had been found lying sick under a train seat.  She was hospitalised with pneumonia, sepsis, meningitis, and suffered a stroke.  Others have stories of being left at a train station or on a corner, but no one ever coming back for them.  They have stories of violence and escapes.

This morning I happened to be looking at an organization which is a federation of groups of parents of children/family members with disabilities.  It’s a national advocacy group. But who are the advocates for the orphans no one will take, especially if they have disabilities?   Early in the history of Shishur Sevay we had a terrible battle with the government. They had made a decision, without notifying us, that they would send five girls who were not orphans.  A major donor had just pulled out of an NGO run home, and one unit had to be closed.  A woman showed up at our gate, unannounced, and said she was here to put her child at Shishur Sevay.  I told her there was a mistake and I went to meet with the government officials.  There I found yet another mother who had been told to bring her daughter to us, and I refused.  The government official asked me what was the difference between our girls and this woman’s daughter.  I turned to the mother and said, “You may not know it but your daughter has a wonderful mother who will fight for her.”   The same government official who four months before had sat at Shishur Sevay rocking one of my brown dolls, and telling me we would get the children, now threatened to bring charges against me for discrimination against children with mothers.  She threatened to close Shishur Sevay and take the children.  I stayed polite and composed and told them they would have to kill me first. It was about a year of tension until we were able to get a renewal and I lived in terror that they would actually try to close us.

Why did I refuse?  Our motherless girls would have immediately become second class citizens to these educated girls with mothers who would advocate for them.  In India, to be an orphan is to carry shame.  “So your family threw you out?”  Orphans come with more shame, histories of unimaginable abuse, and a profound sense of grief and loss. Some live with suicidal fantasies seemingly their only relief from the pain of loss.  They lack trust.  After all if you can’t trust your own family to keep you, why should you ever trust anyone else?

Most orphans are not able to be effective advocates for orphan children.  Few are really educated so their stories are not articulated in ways that are heard.  And they live in shame.  Yes, I have a hope that our girls, if they choose, will be able to speak about the care that is needed.  They are being educated to have the skills to be effective on behalf of themselves and others.  But they are also free to walk away if they choose.  It cannot be another burden for them to bear.

One of a Hundred Stories

Dr. Harrison in 2006

Dr. Harrison in 2006

I have a hundred stories for a hundred lives lived just within this lifetime.  In this story I am the Founder of Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay, a model of inclusive non-institutional care for orphan girls previously housed in a government institution, having already been rejected for adoption.  Some have severe disabilities.  All carried wounds, some visible, some buried deep within their memories.

This story began when I was 17 years old. I’d written an essay for school about “The Meaning of Life” in which I saw myself acquiring the education and skills to one day care for orphans in need.  I had just seen some pictures of Korean orphans when a friend returned from the war.  Something clicked; something that has lasted a lifetime.

I adopted my Indian daughter from Kolkata in 1984 and raised her in the US. That is my connection to Kolkata, a very personal one.  Kolkata is family. I also have an older daughter to whom I gave birth.  I raised both them as a single parent.  All my stories have twists and turns to them, all 100 of them.

In 2000 I decided we should visit Kolkata.  I had just been through breast cancer and didn’t know how long I would live.  I had also wondered what happens to the children not adopted.  I knew India needed to provide for its orphan children and not just ship them abroad.  When we visited, and in subsequent visits I made, it was clear that mostly these children languished.  I also realized that there was little hope or expectation that anything really could be done for them.  The phrase I kept hearing was, ‘Nothing Can Be Done.”

I sold my house in 2006.  My younger daughter graduated from Barnard College and the older one from New York Law School and I left for India to start Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay.  The Society received its registration in June 2006.  We received our License in January 2007 and 12 girls were sent to us by Order of the WB Child Welfare Committee for care rehabilitation, four of them with profound disabilities.  I realized quickly that what the children needed most was a “mother” at home checking their homework at night.  I also learned how much they needed each other.  Bonds of genuine love grew between the abled and the children with severe disabilities.  I am mother to them but their strength and security is also in their connections to each other.

Shishur Sevay is not well-known.  I used to refer to us as a stealth orphanage.  Some of that was because I couldn’t stretch myself or our resources any farther, and also because it was hard for me to keep hearing people say it couldn’t be done.  In my relationship with the government I was simply a nice lady from America who liked children.  I shed the titles, roles, privileges of my earlier life.  I also endured death threats and all the other obstacles to creating something good in the face of a culture of mistrust and cynicism.  I needed time to learn about these children.  I understand why people felt nothing could be done, because some of these children are the first to tell you not to bother, that nothing can be done for them. I needed time, time to think, to learn, to try approaches that worked or sometimes didn’t work.  The children needed time, a lot of time, a lot of safety and protection, and a lot of support as they began to risk “trying.”

Ten years later Shishur Sevay is a shining example of what CAN be done.  The girls are thriving.  Two are studying for Class X Boards.  Shishur Sevay is a leader in inclusive living and inclusive education.  We have caught the attention of researchers at Vanderbilt University and have been studied as a unique case of inclusion of abled and differently abled.  We created our own school Ichche Dana Inclusive School, as after six years we gave up on outside schooling for our children.

We are leaders in advanced communication technology.  We were among the first in India to use the Tobii Eye Tracker for our girls with severe cerebral palsy.  They are able now to communicate with us using their eyes to control the computer.   For them and for us this is a profound life changing experience. Our girls are showing what can be done.  We are doing it IN India so that the girls have opportunity without the loss of their homeland, language, culture, heritage and religion.  In the first week I showed them the map of India and began to teach them that they are Indian, that this is their country, and that they belong.  Although I am American and a catalyst, we are strong because of our Indian staff of teachers, caretakers, accountants, administrators, and Board.  Each year we have passed our inspections and the government has thanked us for our efforts.  India gave me the gift of my daughter, who lives happily in the US.  But I am like so many fortunate Indians who want to give back for the gift I have received.

Our infrastructure is strong.  We have received the GuideStar Gold Seal 2017 for transparency of our records, a goal from the beginning.  Our records and processes are open.  We want people to understand what we do and how we do it.

What must be the next part of this story?

  1. Establish lifetime care, inclusive and inter-generational for those who cannot live independently
  2. Establish Shishur Sevay as a model of inclusive care in the spectrum of alternatives to institutionalisation
  3. Conduct training in inclusive living and education in the community and within the professional community
  4. Assist in the creation of other homes based on the model of Shishur Sevay but adapted to the character and needs of the community
  5. Inspire hope and dreams by evoking positive inclusive experiences with the differently abled
  6. Contribute to the building of an Inclusive India

For this, we are no longer stealth, and I am no longer quiet. I am here to tell you what I have learned in raising these abandoned and rejected children.  I will share what they have taught me, what I have learned.  And I will share my adventure of constant growth and emergence.  I’m back.

We are here. We are building an inclusive India

2017: We Are Here. We Are Building An Inclusive India

 

 

 

Cats Welcome in the Park; Ganga not welcome.

 

Cat welcome, Ganga not welcome

Cat welcome, Ganga not welcome

The girls went to a local park yesterday, a large scenic walk around an artificial pond having a boat and ducks.  Seema Gupta our Board Member, and recently retired Joint Registrar of Calcutta High Court took them.  As they were walking around the park the “caretaker” came up and belligerently said they could not take that car (the wheelchair) on the walk as it is for people walking.  Seema took him on, full force demanding to know who he was and who had given this order.

The walkway that surrounds the pond.

The walkway that surrounds the pond.

The Big Pond. The walkway goes all around the pond.

The Big Pond. The walkway goes all around the pond.

After their walk around they went to the local ex-councillor’s office, as it is near to the part, and complained.  He called the current councillor, who said we could use the park, and that was communicated to the caretaker.   Then they stopped at another park, right across the road from this one but the wheelchair can’t get in so Seema waits outside guarding the chair, and the girls go in, carrying Ganga.

Their favorite bench swing in the park.

Their favorite bench swing in the park.

Turnstile gate the wheelchair can't get through.

Turnstile gate the wheelchair can’t get through.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, it turns out that the day before, the same caretaker had gone up the one of the girls who had put Ganga on the bench swing and asked her why she was putting that big girl on this swing as it was only for babies.  She had argued with him and refused to take her off, but had not told us. So this was the same man who then tried to stop us yesterday from using the park with the big pond.   Although at the moment we have “permission” to go, no one really wants to, and Ganga says she is worried.  She has been noticeably upset.

Well, there is more.  There are only three parks in the neighborhood, these two, and the one very close to our house, right at the start of our lane.  I wrote about that park 11 September 2011:

It was a long time ago and we successfully occupied the park, but essentially it means that we have had trouble with acceptance at ALL THREE neighborhood parks.  This morning I went out early and took all these pictures.  I visited our close park and took a picture of two young men sitting on one of the swings we had been told there were ONLY for children, and clearly not our children.

Our closest park, with two young men sitting on the "children's only" bench swing they didn't want us to use.

Our closest park, with two young men sitting on the “children’s only” bench swing they didn’t want us to use.

Coming home to Shishur Sevay, our safe place

Coming home to Shishur Sevay, our safe place

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming home to Shishur Sevay, our safe place for now.  Soon I will write more about our plans to move.   We really need larger facilities to have the programs we plan.  Now we are 14 kids and me living in about 1500 sq. ft,  and running a school, and office, and rehabilitation, and many plans for the future.

In the meantime though, In 3 hours Anjali Forber-Pratt will be arriving from the US and we will make this community take notice of disability rights.  Ganga is very excited and we talk about Anjali Didi and Ganga leading our occupation of the park with the big pond,

Fumbling Through Raising Funds

I’m stumbling.  I know what I have to do and I’m not doing very well at it.  So I write, with two purposes in mind: 1. It may help me find my way out of the web I feel around me, and 2. I don’t think that fundamentally I am very different from others, and so when I have trouble solving a problem, I imagine there are others out there struggling with the same things.  I just do it more openly sometimes.  The third of my two reasons is that someone else might have some words to help me though this.

My goal for 2015 was to begin serious fund raising, building the future for Shishur Sevay because my personal funds are being depleted and I have to secure the future of the girls.  I’m guessing that none of you reading this are aware of my serious intentions because I think I’ve basically kept it a secret.

“It makes me feel like a beggar, too much like the lady on the street, body bent slightly forward, with her hand outstretched and cupped, saying, ‘Please, for my children, please.'”

To be honest, this is not all fantasy.  Asking for money leaves me open to a lot of painful comments and opinions, and when that happens it feels terrible and words invade my mind and dig and dig and I struggle for the words to pull me back up. Sometimes I go and sit with the kids, especially the little ones, just enjoying their presence, reminding me why I struggle so hard.  The big girls know something is wrong, but I don’t talk about it.  They have no idea that money is a struggle because I never wanted them to. Shishur Sevay is the only stable place they have lived and I don’t want them worrying, and we are in no way desperate, but it’s the long term that has to be secured. I’d like to build an endowment.  I get a small pension and social security.  When I die, those go.  And people think I don’t worry?  I started Shishur Sevay with a plan to raise about 8 girls to independence and I had the personal funds to do it.  All that changed when I saw the four children with disabilities, in the government institution, that no one would take, Rani, Bornali, Ganga, and Sonali.  I looked at them and said yes. That’s what disability does.  It upends plans.  It hijacks the future, but these children are the heart of Shishur Sevay, the heart of who we are, and they will need care for the rest of their lives, and the cost of the care that keeps them alive and full of joy is enormous, even in India.

The big girls do worry about my age and health. Reassuringly they once told me not to worry, that Andrei Dada (my son-in-law) would take care of them.  Yes, Andrei knows their expectations.  He is on the Board of Shishur Sevay, and he and Heather started Friends of Shishur Sevay a 501 (c)(3) in the US.  Cici’s wife Erica created  the website here and Goutami (Shishur Sevay’s first intern) completes that group of incredibly busy people who do it for the children, and also for me. I know that and I am grateful. Andrei is going to run the NYC Marathon this year and raise money for Shishur Sevay.  The secret is OUT!

It hadn’t all started out that way.  I came here on my own and though my children were proud of what I was doing, they would rather I’d stayed closer to home.  But then they came to visit and fell in love with the children and wanted to take them home with them…. And then Heather and Andrei had kids and now my grandchildren skype with my kids here and Heather tries to explain to her daughter how grandma is mother of all these kids, and mother to her mother…… well, these extended families!

I LOVED giving out money when I was at Johnson & Johnson.  Being a donor was an incredible high.  Fortunately I never took it personally as I was thanked, honored, etc.  Later on when I first came to India, I loved being able to give money and time.  Yes, it’s a high.  So it’s also hard for me to be at that other end.  You see when I was at J&J, everyone took my calls!  But now, raising money?  I get left wondering whether I should call again, or let it go, not wanting to bother people, not wanting to be perceived as a beggar….wondering whether I said something wrong, voice too loud, high, strong, deferential?  I wonder if I treated people that way?  I really don’t think so, but I don’t know how it felt to them.  Oddly, even people I helped often weren’t very nice to me, but that wasn’t what I was there for.  If I improved someone’s life, that was enough.

Two nights ago I was talking with one of the girls about how it felt years ago when we had some terrible battles going on here, with some staff successfully creating barriers between the girls and me.  I said it felt terrible, but I never thought to leave because in a way I won anyway.  I got to feed them, educate them, give them a safe place, and I sure wished it had been different, but they had hopes now, and a future….. and that is true.  I did it and do it because it makes me feel good. As for what happens when I’m gone, I think I put it best in a previous blog from 2011 here

I’m the captain.  The ship has to be seaworthy.  The crew has to be able to take over at any moment.  The Board has to be prepared to give direction to the crew.  All this needs to be in place.  It came to me pretty simply this morning.  I have to leave a seaworthy ship with a seaworthy crew, docked in a safe harbor.  I could not “rest in peace” otherwise.

But back to fund raising and the future.  I’m beginning to feel I have to figure out how to protect myself in all this.  Even as I write I cringe at things that have been said to me.  It’s been personal….  Maybe I need to become “A Beggar in Armour!” When I was with Johnson & Johnson I used to get dressed in the morning in my dark corporate suit, choose a blouse from a variety of whites and off-whites, pick out a suitable Hermes scarf, step into my Ferragamo shoes, put on my expensive make-up so I would look natural, face the mirror and say, ‘They think this is me!”  But that was the time I was in my final skill-building for what I have done since, and now, more than any other time in my life, I’m more me than ever, very strong and very vulnerable and I have to manage those contradictions to secure the future of my children.

I haven’t found an answer but I’ve laid out the landscape of the problem…. or rather the seascape.  Like everyone else, I’m a work in progress.

Michelle at the Helm of the Aquarius

Michelle at the Helm of the Aquarius, circa 1970

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